Subscribe to
Opera Today

Receive articles and news via RSS feeds or email subscription.


twitter_logo[1].gif



9780521746472.png

0810888688.gif

0810882728.gif

Recently in Reviews

First Night of the BBC Proms : Elgar The Kingdom

The BBC Proms 2014 season began with Sir Edward Elgars The Kingdom (1903-6). It was a good start to the season,which commemorates the start of the First World War. From that perspective Sir Andrew Davis's The Kingdom moved me deeply.

Le nozze di Figaro, Munich

One is unlikely to come across a cast of Figaro principals much better than this today, and the virtues of this performance indeed proved to be primarily vocal.

James Gilchrist at Wigmore Hall

Assured elegance, care and thoughtfulness characterised tenor James Gilchrist’s performance of Schubert’s Schwanengesang at the Wigmore Hall, the cycles’ two poets framing a compelling interpretation of Beethoven’s An die ferne Geliebte.

Music for a While: Improvisations on Henry Purcell

‘Music for a while shall all your cares beguile.’ Dryden’s words have never seemed as apt as at the conclusion of this wonderful sequence of improvisations on Purcell’s songs and arias, interspersed with instrumental chaconnes and toccatas, by L’Arpeggiata.

Nabucco at Orange

The acoustic of the gigantic Théâtre Antique Romain at Orange cannot but astonish its nine thousand spectators, the nearly one hundred meter breadth of the its proscenium inspires awe. There was excited anticipation for this performance of Verdi’s first masterpiece.

Richard Strauss: Notturno

Richard Strauss may be most closely associated with the soprano voice but this recording of a selection of the composer’s lieder by baritone Thomas Hampson is a welcome reminder that the rapt lyricism of Strauss’s settings can be rendered with equal beauty and character by the low male voice.

Saint Louis: A Hit is a Hit is a Hit

Opera Theatre of Saint Louis has once again staked claim to being the summer festival “of choice” in the US, not least of all for having mounted another superlative world premiere.

La Flûte Enchantée (2e Acte)
at the Aix Festival

In past years the operas of the Aix Festival that took place in the Grand Théâtre de Provence began at 8 pm. The Magic Flute began at 7 pm, or would have had not the infamous intermittents (seasonal theatrical employees) demanded to speak to the audience.

Ariodante at the Aix Festival

High drama in Aix. Three scenarios in conflict — those of G.F. Handel, Richard Jones and the intermittents (disgruntled seasonal theatrical employees). Make that four — mother nature.

Lucy Crowe, Wigmore Hall

The programme declared that ‘music, water and night’ was the connecting thread running through this diverse collection of songs, performed by soprano Lucy Crowe and pianist Anna Tilbrook, but in fact there was little need to seek a unifying element for these eclectic works allowed Crowe to demonstrate her expressive range — and offered the audience the opportunity to hear some interesting rarities.

The Turn of the Screw, Holland Park

‘Only make the reader’s general vision of evil intense enough … and his own experience, his own imagination, his own sympathy … will supply him quite sufficiently with all the particulars.

Plenty of Va-Va-Vroom: La Fille du Regiment, Iford

It is not often that concept, mood, music and place coincide perfectly. On the first night of Opera della Luna’s La Fille du Regiment at Iford Opera in Wiltshire, England we arrived with doubts (rather large doubts it should be admitted)as to whether Donizetti’s “naive and vulgar” romp of militarism and proto-feminism, peopled with hordes of gun-toting soldiers and praying peasants, could hardly be contained, surely, inside Iford’s tiny cloister?

La finta giardiniera, Glyndebourne

‘Lovers and madmen have such seething brains,/ Such shaping fantasies, that apprehend/ More than cool reason ever comprehends.’

Sophie Karthäuser, Wigmore Hall

Belgian soprano Sophie Karthäuser has a rich range of vocal resources upon which to draw: she has power and also precision; her top is bright and glinting and it is complemented by a surprisingly full and rich lower register; she can charm with a flowing lyrical line, but is also willing to take musical risks to convey emotion and embody character.

Ariadne auf Naxos, Royal Opera

‘When two men like us set out to produce a “trifle”, it has to become a very serious trifle’, wrote Hofmannsthal to Strauss during the gestation of their opera about opera.

Leoš Janáček : The Cunning Little Vixen, Garsington Opera at Wormsley

Janáček started The Cunning Little Vixen on the cusp of old age in 1922 and there is something deeply elegiac about it.

La Traviata in Marseille

It took only a couple of years for Il trovatore and Rigoletto to make it from Italy to the Opéra de Marseille, but it took La traviata (Venice, 1853) sixteen years (Marseille, 1869).

Madama Butterfly in San Francisco

Gesamtkunstwerk, synthesis of fable, sound, shape and color in art, may have been made famous by Richard Wagner, and perhaps never more perfectly realized than just now by San Francisco Opera.

Luca Francesconi : Quartett, Linbury Studio Theatre, London

Luca Francesconi is well-respected in the avant garde. His music has been championed by the Arditti Quartett and features regularly in new music festivals. His opera Quartett has at last reached London after well-received performances in Milan and Amsterdam.

Puccini Manon Lescaut, Royal Opera House, London

Manon Lescaut at the Royal Opera House, London, brings out the humanity which lies beneath Puccini's music. The composer was drawn to what we'd now called "outsiders. In Manon Lescaut, Puccini describes his anti-heroine with unsentimental honesty. His lush harmonies describe the way she abandons herself to luxury, but he doesn't lose sight of the moral toughness at the heart of Abbé Prévost's story, Manon is sensual but, like her brother, fatally obssessed with material things. Only when she has lost everything else does she find true values through love..

OPERA TODAY ARCHIVES »

Reviews

23 Jul 2012

Hector Berlioz, Les Troyens (concert performance, BBC Proms)

Hearing The Trojans in concert at the Royal Albert Hall as part of the Proms was, for me at least, a much happier experience than when it laboured under the crowd-pleasing would-be-musical-comedy served up by David McVicar’s production for the Royal Opera.

Hector Berlioz : Les Troyens

Cassandre: Anna Caterina Antonacci; Chorèbe - Fabio Capitanucci; Enée: Bryan Hymel; Didon: Eva-Maria Westbroek; Narbal: Brindley Sherratt; Anna: Hanna Hipp; Ascagne: Barbara Senator; Priam: Robert Lloyd; Hécube: Pamela Helen Stephen; Ghost of Hector: Jihoon Kim; Panthée: Ashley Holland; Hélénus: Ji Hyun Kim; Greek Captain: Lukas Jakobski; Trojan Soldier/Mercure: Daniel Grice; Iopas: Ji-Min Park; First Soldier: Adrian Clarke; Second Soldier: Jeremy White; Hylas: Ed Lyon. Orchestra of the Royal Opera House; Royal Opera Chorus (chorus master: Renato Balsadonna)/Sir Antonio Pappano (conductor).

22nd July 2012, Royal Albert Hall, London.

 

Speaking to a few members of the audience who had also attended both, I was clearly not the only person to have found conductor and soloists liberated by the concert hall. Sir Antonio Pappano’s conducting still has its problems, but he makes Berlioz sound less like Verdi than he does Wagner, and, as at Covent Garden, his reading gathered strength as it went on. Even the first act, where sometimes he appeared to think that he was conducting Aida, had stronger, more idiomatic moments. The very opening was far too fast, breathless rather than jubilant, the Trojans opening ‘Ha! Ha!’ sounding as if they were hyper-ventilating. However, the transformation of mood signalling the arrival of Cassandre was very well handled, doubtless informed by plenty of theatrical experience yet without the encumbrance of inadequate scenic presentation. The disquieting weirdness of the orchestra throughout her recitative and aria painted a thousand words. Likewise, the terrible, ominous tread of the march and choral hymn, ‘Dieux protecteurs de la ville éternelle’ - the irony of the words properly telling - was compellingly presented, far more in touch with the inheritance of Gluck’s obsequies than had previously been the case. It was a pity, then, that the ensuing Wrestlers’ Dance reverted to Verdian type. Cassandre’s aria, ‘Non, je ne verrai pas la deplorable fête’ was conducted as if Pappano had a bus to catch, but thereafter things settled down, off-stage - or rather arena - brass sounding utterly resplendent in the act finale. One might have had quibbles here and there, but save for an unfortunate lapse of tension towards the end of the fourth act - it really must be maintained here, lest the Berlioz nay-sayers have their day in court over alleged ‘longueurs’ - there was much to enjoy, not least a vividly pictorial Royal Hunt and Storm, suffused also with erotic longing.

Of course, those of us who have heard Sir Colin Davis conduct the opera will never forget the experience: a performance far more alert to Berlioz’s formal imperatives, in which never, not once, did the dramatic, Gluckian tensian sag, but sadly, it is not logistically possible for every performance one hears to emanate from the hands of the world’s greatest Berlioz interpreter. The best stomachs, to misquote Voltaire, are not necessarily those that reject all food. Pappano more often than not did a good job, considerably better than at the staged performance I saw. And the Orchestra of the Royal Opera House played magnificently throughout, even on the occasions when its direction proved a little misguided.

The major problem with a number of the sung performances remained the level not only of French pronunciation, but French style. The latter is not monolithic of course, and it is no bad thing to have preconceptions challenged, but singing Berlioz as if he were Verdi simply does not pass muster, especially if pronunciation is all over the place. (Incidentally, the lack of comment by many writers on this crucial aspect should really be a matter for concern. If English-language critics simply cannot hear when the French language is being distorted, even butchered, they should probably leave Berlioz well alone.) There was a broad spectrum, of course: two singers who again covered themselves in glory were Ed Lyon as Hylas, his song deceptively simple and touching, and Anna Caterina Antonacci as Cassandre. If there were times when the orchestra threatened to overwhelm the latter’s voice, it never did, and that struggle is surely expressive of the drama. Relieved of McVicarisms, Antonacci channelled all of her musico-dramatic energies into a searing portrayal of the doomed prophetess. Even as a little boy reading the ancient legends, Cassandra was for me a figure of empathy; here, her predicament and nobility of spirit were searingly portrayed in a performance that would have nothing whatsoever to fear from comparison with Davis’s Petra Lang. Ironically, Eva-Maria Westbroek’s Didon, if hardly an epitome of French style, came alive far more dramatically than on stage. There was now a proper sense of a woman scorned, of righteous fury. Bryan Hymel’s Enée, however, continues to lack not only correct, or even feasible, pronunciation, but also refulgence of tone. If only, Jonas Kaufmann had been fit to sing. At times, alas, Hymel sounded like a parody of Jon Vickers Perhaps others can more readily overlook the odd mispronunciations, also a characteristic of Fabio Capitanucci’s Chorèbe, but they surely ought at least to have difficulties with the strangulated tone and the crude, Verdi-like delivery. Vignettes were often well taken. Ji-Min Park’s Iopas was sung beautifully, if one could ignore the lack of ease with the language. And small though the part may be, Pamela Helen Stephen’s Hécube somehow managed blood-curdlingly to capture the attention, as she and others recoiled at the death of Laocoön.

Aside from the second act finale, when the women experienced slight intonational problems, the choral singing was excellent too. Not quite a match, perhaps for Davis’s London Symphony Chorus - is there a chorus anywhere that has sung more Berlioz? - but impressive nevertheless. As an introduction to Berlioz’s extraordinary opera, this could hardly have failed to impress. Even for those of us who have known Les Troyens for a while, it remained an inspiring, if in some respects flawed, experience. Both the Proms and the Royal Opera should be congratulated for their efforts in bringing the work to a wider audience.

Mark Berry

Send to a friend

Send a link to this article to a friend with an optional message.

Friend's Email Address: (required)

Your Email Address: (required)

Message (optional):